Prevost, George

Sir George Prevost, soldier, administrator, governor-in-chief of Canada (b at New Jersey 19 May 1767; d at London, Eng 5 Jan 1816). George Prevost was the son of Augustine Prevost, a French-speaking Swiss Protestant who had served with the British army during the siege of Québec in 1759. He was a lieutenant colonel at the time of George’s birth and later would send his son to a military academy in London.

George Prevost joined his father's regiment, the 60th Foot, in 1779 and by 1784 was a captain in the 25th Foot. In the Napoleonic Wars he saw service primarily in the West Indies. He commanded the defence of St Vincent against the French (1794-96), was appointed lieutenant-governor of St Lucia (1798-1802) and in 1802 governor and captain-general of Dominica. He served in England from 1805 until 1808 when he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. In 1809 Prevost also served as second-in-command of an expedition that captured Martinique, where he demonstrated bold and swift generalship. He proved to be a popular and skillful governor in Nova Scotia as well as a capable military commander as he worked to improve its defences in case of war with the US.

As lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, a position he held 1808-11, Prevost took steps to encourage New England’s violation of President Thomas Jefferson’s embargo on trade with Britain by designating several “free ports” in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick where American goods would be exempt from customs duties.

Governor-in-Chief of British North America

Prevost seemed to British authorities well suited to exercise supreme command in British North America at a time when war with the US looked imminent. He had the additional advantage of being fluently bilingual and experienced at governing a French-speaking population, as he had done in St Lucia. Under governor Sir James Craig, French-English relations in Lower Canada (Québec) had become antagonistic and Craig had, unwisely, taken sides in several controversies. On 21 October 1811, Prevost took over as governor-in-chief of British North America and commander of British forces in North America. He placated the leading Canadien politicians and won the confidence of the Roman Catholic Church so successfully that when war with the US broke out, there was widespread willingness among the people to serve in the militia and to pay for defence. However, his policies alienated many of the English-speaking group who dominated the appointed executive council and proved most vocal in their criticisms.

Prevost’s Preparations for War

As commander-in-chief Prevost was preoccupied with military defence. He knew that there was little hope of reinforcements, given the British army’s commitments in the Napoleonic Wars. His forces numbered some 5600 regular troops and fencibles, of which some 1200 were stationed in Upper Canada.

By early 1812 Prevost was able to secure from the House of Assembly a new militia act and funds for defence. The British government ordered Prevost to act defensively in the event of war and to take the offensive only to repel invasion. His strategy, thus, was above all to safeguard Québec, the only permanent fortress in the Canadas.

He believed that the forces he had available were too few to undertake attacks on the US and that they should be husbanded for defensive purposes. He was well aware of the great dissension in the US, particularly in New England states, over the war and believed that attacks would only serve to unite Americans behind their government's war policy. After the War of 1812 broke out, the heavy responsibility that he faced to preserve British North America against the larger American forces made him cautious and even pessimistic about the possibility of preserving Upper Canada.

Once hostilities started in June 1812, however, Sir Isaac Brock found Prevost’s defensive stance irritating. In fact the offensive initiatives taken by Captain Charles Roberts in capturing Fort Michilimackinac and by Brock in taking Detroit both raised the morale of Upper Canadians and revealed American unpreparedness.

Nevertheless, in August 1812, Prevost made a truce with the US commander opposite hoping hostilities would end. It lasted less than a month. Again, in 1814 he accepted an American proposal for a ceasefire, but the British government forbad any consideration of it.

Prevost did, however, send troops, supplies and money to Upper Canada while initially discouraging offensive operations. In May 1813 he joined a raid on the American naval base of Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario, which achieved only partial success. As Napoleon went down to defeat in Europe, Prevost began urging his commanders in Upper Canada to take the offensive, but he provided very limited support.

His golden opportunity to achieve a major success came in September 1814 when he had available almost 15 000 veterans from Wellington's army and he was given orders to seize one or more major American bases.

The Battle of Plattsburgh

Prevost responded with a combined land and naval operation against Plattsburgh, NY, on Lake Champlain. He set out early in September 1814 with a powerful army, which for once greatly outnumbered the Americans. On reaching Plattsburgh, however, he goaded Captain George Downie into joining the operation, but then inexplicably failed to provide the promised military backing. When Downie was killed and his naval force defeated, Prevost retreated with a disgruntled army to Lower Canada. His justification, that Plattsburgh would be indefensible after the loss of naval supremacy on Lake Champlain, was considered cowardly by Wellington’s Peninsular veterans.

Criticism and Court Martial

Prevost’s critics gained an ear in London and even those, like Wellington himself, who accepted Prevost’s explanation agreed that he would have to be recalled for failing to accomplish what had been expected. Hence, on 2 March 1815, a day after Prevost heard that the peace treaty had been signed at Ghent and ratified in Washington, he was summoned to London to defend his conduct of the Plattsburgh campaign. In August 1815 a naval court martial decided that defeat had been caused by Prevost’s urging the squadron into premature action and then failing to afford the promised support from the land forces.

Prevost then requested a military court martial in order to vindicate himself but he died of dropsy a month before the court martial was to convene. Despite his preparations for the defence of Canada and his limited resources, as well as his considerable role in preventing the Americans from conquering Canada, Prevost’s temerity as a field commander has continued to tarnish his career.

Author: Wes Turner and James Marsh

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